Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Coffeehouse in Haarlem

Lest anyone mistake the character of the place, the Frans Hals Café displays also a smaller sign: cannabis shop. The neon likeness of the “Laughing Cavalier” implies that the name recognizes Hals’ presumed cordial humor (though the art historians would prefer the acerbity of the “Lady-Governors”) rather than his improvidence (attested by numerous extant documents). Most likely, the shop expresses simple civic pride in Haarlem’s most celebrated artist. It is a casual place, much like low-rent coffeehouses anywhere, with miscellaneous furnishings, handwritten signs, improvisatory decor, and an old worn wood floor. A small booth near the door is tended by an pleasant young fellow. To one side is a display with the merchandise he offers: maybe ten varieties each of marijuana and hashish, priced from 12.50 to 18 guiders/gram (Nlg 2.47 = $1). At the bar behind, coffee, tea, fruit drinks, soda, and “space cakes” (for Nlg. 7 ½) are available as well as communal bongs. Though it is yet morning, several patrons sit rolling, smoking, sipping, reading. A computer is available in the front and a video game in the back.

Music plays from the “Emerald Light” free jukebox. The young man produces plastic containers to display his buds. The visitor from abroad cannot avoid feeling that there is something stunning about this simple act. He offers impressionistic reviews of the goods. The tourist purchases some Afghan skunk (actually a Dutch-grown weed) and some coffee and passes an idle hour. Just before exiting, he visits the bathroom and observe that this Dutch toilet flushes toward the front rather than the back. And the flush is activated by a small button on top, flat and identical in color to its surroundings. Hmmmmm.

In Amsterdam, at a well-known spot, the Bluebird (where an ambitious customer is purchasing Superskunk from an Irish heavy whose his aide in Caucasian dreads asks a customer is he is going to behave today). This place is loud and crowded and full of (humpf!) foreigners.

Back in Haarlem the Theehuis was the original smoking café. It’s a small establishment, only two little tables and a ledge with a couple of stools, but it seems to have a reputation among the cognoscenti. A young tram conductor with a blond ponytail down his back says that he has never heard of a fight in a coffeehouse. Toleration of these establishments has been the rule his entire life. He says he must remind himself to be discreet when he visits Germany. The Dutch prefer to roll great spliffs, mixing the pot with tobacco. They say it’s because dope doesn’t burn steadily, but surely it is also the cocktail principle, watering down the intoxicant with a mixer. It does make for a denser tobacco atmosphere than we Americans would choose. Otherwise, these places seem wholly innocuous. Passersby pay no attention as patrons in windowseats roll fat joints.

Aesthetic Principles of the Middle English Romance

I would like to approach my topic through what might seem a rather peculiar route — a few remarks on the aesthetic problems posed by the popularity of American television. Though the juxtaposition may seem provocative, it should not sound willfully arbitrary as others have associated the romances with detective thrillers and the like and have labeled them not only "popular," but "hackwork," "subliterary," and even simply "inferior." While the statement of literary value judgments is rarely logically compelling, it is often very revealing, and it is the basis for such denigrating adjectives and for the unstated but no less clearly expressed contrary views that led a mass audience to enjoy romances six hundred years ago and comedies and cop shows today that I take as my subject.

Many among us who love art and make some claim for familiarity with its beauties and its techniques are nonetheless insecure or indifferent before the question of popular genres. The romantic myth that during the golden age taste was miraculously universal (in Greece, say, or Artaud's Bali, or in any of a number of versions of the American Indian currently retailed in these states), but that the situation has today irreclaimably altered dismisses without accounting for the phenomenon of American television. The very tribal elders who only yesterday tossed proverbs and folk-tales about the evening cook-fire while anthropologists gathered in the darkening gloom may themselves today absorb reruns from the narrative factories that program the minds of Americans for nearly a third of their waking lives, and yet the respectful anthropologists have, for the most part, moved on. Through what means does television speak to the hearts of all with grace and persuasion sufficient to displace any rival? Only the film scholars are so "bold as to identify the most popular with the most artful in contemporary entertainments, while students of the popular arts as such often prefer sociological inference to critical discourse. What, precisely, are the qualities of truly popular art that make it at once appealing to its audience and unappetizing to the learned? I believe that the same qualities underlie both reactions and that they are equally evident in the season's new network shows and in the Middle English romances. As my interest here is generalizing and largely theoretical I shall speak of the romances as a unitary body of work, though much of what I have to say will be less true of the exceptional works which have been more admired and accepted. My attempt is not so much to justify the romances or to assert their special excellence as to illuminate the genre as a whole, and with it the idea of the "popular."

A survey of the last hundred years of scholarship treating the romances indicates that much of the early interest was in grouping them by theme and in tracing sources and influences. This approach was accompanied by a somewhat condescending attitude toward the poems. They were clearly derivative, such that even those with no known French originals were provided with hypothetical ones; they were highly repetitive on the level of incident as well as of verbal formula; they seemed "flat" with very little character development or description but with a good deal of action; and they normally had happy endings which celebrated the known and erased the contradictions and conflicts which the texts had briefly raised. A tone of apology for these characteristics is apparent in some work done yet today. Rather than disputing the reality of these "negative" traits or praising those few texts which do not exhibit them to so great an extent as others, I mean to focus on them and to suggest an explanation for them other than the incompetence of the authors.

The quality of repetitiveness may be quantitatively determined. It is surely first of all the hackneyed (that is, familiar) sound of the tale of Sir Thopas that causes Herry Bailly to call it "dogerel." Convention may be a ground against which change is measured, but what function can repetition have. The question has been illuminated by the investigation of the nature of oral literature over the last forty years, but much of the discussion of oral formulae has centered on their technical mnemonic advantages or their diagnostic value in testing the text for its degree of orality. Little detailed attention has been paid to the thematic implications of such repetition, though some possibilities are apparent. Its first function is clearly to mark off the text as a literary one and, further, as a representative of an established genre (like "once upon a time"). Secondly, the content of the repeated phrases must to some extent constitute an inventory of the values of the culture which produced it.

Just as the stereotyped presentation of sacrifice in Homer intensifies rather than reducing its emphasis as a highly significant ritual of Greek life, so Middle English passages on "Christian" war or ostentatious display of wealth and the modern television cliches of sexual stereotypes and dialogue consisting of verbally aggressive wisecracks define and buttress attitudes which are highly culturally specific. The insistent and coherent construction of a world-view through tireless repetition of motif may seem admirable in Indonesian myth but disagreeable in the products of our own society.

Repetition on the level of narrative episode, so alien to a Flaubertian or New Critical fetishization of the individual word, is indeed characteristic of much of the literature of myth which is culturally normative and which possesses a vitality and reality exclusive of any individual retelling. The binary oppositions resolved in myth according to Levi-Strauss structure the segments of the romance narrative in which episodes may be added or subtracted or may float from story to story. That this is the very stuff of folk-tale a glance into Stith Thompson will verify. So the very "looseness" of narrative is an essential and enabling condition for the construction of a localized "world of discourse," in which the elements may appear in virtually any order though they remain the same internally.

So, too, the lack of characterization, motivation, and specificity of description indicates the universality of the story's theme rather than the poverty of the author's imagination. Sinbad the poor and Sinbad the wealthy are the same, as the story makes abundantly clear. The archetypal family of old-fashioned situation comedy replicates the nameless father, mother, and children of fairy tales. Things happen without cause in order to show that they happen to Everyman, not to a particular person.
The insistence on a world of exceedingly solid yet floating conventions is evident in the rigidity with which editors require them not only of television shows, but also of romance novels, pornography, detective stories, and science fiction. The redundancy thus generated is neither incidental nor inappropriate. Rather it is a necessary technique in this powerful and yet despised mode of storytelling. Perhaps the most powerful convention of the lot is that the vicissitudes of romance characters must end with a happy resolution. This is altogether identical with the television conventions and expresses a positive acceptance of the social order of the day and a sort of sympathetic apotropaic magic to ward off problems. Here, too, the lack of specificity is instrumental. Fate controls destiny beyond the influence of any individual's powers, but the artist gains acceptance for his work by turning ultimately to wish-fulfillment. Denied the opportunity to master one's own life, one is nonetheless led to give assent to life in general. While given no organizing understanding, the reader is given a final answer that simulates one. This is probably the strongest single motive for popular art. Far from being a cry of protest from the people, it is a symbolic yea-saying that allows the members of the community to resolve the insoluble and in that way to endure the intolerable.

Having spoken at such length in generalizations, I would like now to review briefly a single specific example, the romance of Qctavian. The story begins with the problem of the barrenness of the royal marriage, a problem surely as profound and suggestive as any, both literally and symbolically. The difficulty is overcome through magical intercession, accompanied by no change in the principal characters. The question of adultery is then raised through the pure and gratuitous malice of the mother-in-law, a circumstance which, like today's mother-in-law jokes, raises without exploring the tensions of aging and sexual rivalry, marriage customs and descent systems which animate so many romance plots. The felicitous resolution of this situation must await the denouement, but it provides the transition to a new problematic opposition, that of city versus wilderness which opens the prospect out from the fertility and happiness of the royal marriage to those of the kingdom as a whole. These two closely related areas are then developed in ever new guises in a pattern as symmetrical as a mandala or a fugue. The search for stable and nurturing family is worked out in the odysseys of the two sons among savage or inappropriate parents, while the search for a supportive social order is represented by the opposition of home and exile of which the Christian against heathen conflict is a variation. (See the following schematic outline.) Every time the cause of deliverance adds nothing new to our knowledge of the characters, nothing to their own perspicuity or insight. The whole reassuring paradigm of affirmation would be undermined by ambiguity or tragedy or social criticism.

Schematic Outline of the Plot of Octavian

fecundity vs. barrenness

birth of twins

fidelity vs. adultery

her condemnation

the city vs. the wilderness

robber beasts

ape vs. knight


lion vs. griffin

maternal lion

nobility vs. bourgeoisie

giant’s defeat

home vs. exile

residence in Jerusalem

Christian vs. heathen


Christian vs. heathen


Lest it sound as though I, too, would class Octavian and the other romances as "subliterary," let me place this sort of story in the context of the nature of literature as a whole. Many attempts to define literature have foundered in the difficulties of accurately portraying the aesthetic text as essentially or exclusively critical, innovative, and convention-breaking on the one hand or, on the other, as conventional, traditional, and normative. The fact is that every use of language partakes of both; every utterance is at once conformist and novel. The distinguishing mark of the aesthetic text is that the relation between it and the norms is of central significance. The mixture of rule-breaking and rule-keeping is not identical in every case, of course. The anti-conventional is prominent in post romantic art while the conventional governs oral literature as well as neoclassical theory.

Each type of literature has masterworks and failures and each expresses a vision. To properly read the medieval romance I think it is imperative to see this classification as one inherently free from value judgments. Only then can fitting distinctions be made. The potential greatness of the conventional narrative is apparent in folk-tale, Hellenistic and medieval romance, ballads and silent comedies. One has a glimpse of its distilled charm in those iconic calendars distributed in many countries featuring an idealized couple, say neo-Aztec in Mexico City or pseudo-Vedic in Delhi, blissful and attractive, free from contradiction. At once encouraging self-acceptance and sales, their many American counterparts include not only Norman Rockwell and Victorian poetry books retailed through Sears, Roebuck but all those purely popular genres which gain their authentic hold on the imagination of people by verging into myth.

Two Poems by Hugo Ball

In Munich Ball was associated with Wedekind in the court theatre, the Kammerspiele. An actor who actually enlisted when the First World War began, Ball was in the army when German invaded Belgium, upon which he concluded that "the war is founded on a glaring mistake, men have been confused with machines.” He deserted, emigrated to Switzerland, and pursued art and anarchism, translating Bakunin.
A few years later, however, he followed a spiritual tendency, perhaps similar at root to that animating Arp and Huelsenbeck, but which, for him, resulted to orthodox Catholicism and a pious and quiet lifestyle.
Ball was a major practitioner of the sound poem. In the Dada Manifesto of 1916, he says “I let the vowels quite simply occur, as a cat meows,” and that document itself several times leaves off attacking the philistines to lapse toward abstract sound. His most celebrated work of this sort “gadji beri bimba,” was performed by The Talking Heads on a 1979 album.
Ball’s other work includes a biography of his friend Hermann Hesse, a novel titled Flametti or The Dandyism of the Poor, and a number of plays, including Michelangelo’s Nose.


jolifanto bambla o falli bambla
großiga m'pfa habla horem
egiga goramen
higo bloiko russula huju
hollaka hollala
anlogo bung
blago bung blago bung
bosso fataka
ü üü ü
schampa wulla wussa olobo
hej tatta gorem
eschige zunbada
wulubu ssubudu uluwu ssubudu
tumba ba-umf
kusa gauma
ba - umf

The Dance of Death (Ball)
to the tune of “That’s how we live”

That’s how we die, that’s how we die,
We die every day.
Because it is so comfy to let go.
Mornings still in sleep and dream,
Noontime already there,
By evening at the bottom of a grave.

Slaughter is our house of joy.
Blood is our only sun.
Death is our sign, our magic word.
We leave both wife and child,
What have they to do with us?
If one relies
on us alone . . .

So we murder, so we kill.
We murder every day
our comrades in a dance of death.
Brother, figure it out with me –
brother, your breast,
brother you must fall and die.

We don’t murmur, we don’t growl,
We’re quiet every day.
Until the joint of the hip-bone turns.
Our camping ground is hard.
Our bread is dry.
Bloody and soiled our dear god.

We thank you, we thank you,
Dear Kaiser, for your grace
in deciding to lie down and die.
Just sleep, sleep soft and still.
Until you waken our poor body,
Now covered by the lawn.

Three Glimpses of New Mexico

Walking in Aguirre Springs --
mesquite and creosote,
prickly pear and yucca,
trees like fairy tale dwarfs
not just small but twisted,
weird, and unforgiving,
ascetic zeal sprouting needles
trying hard to ask the world
for nothing at all.
Of a sudden purling water
makes insistent music
heading downhill fast.

Snowed peaks peer down at high desert
as the very funky Los Americanos bus
trundles on
from El Paso toward Albuquerque.
Unsettled, wrapped about some void,
I catch a few words as six small screens
seek to ease our passage by playing
a Mexican melodrama,
but the image will not hold;
it flips & flips & flips.

In San Felipe de Neri
we buy a prayer medal
of St. Dymphna
who prays in a cloud
surrounded by lunatics.
She has yet to intercede
in the case of the swarthy man
outside in the plaza
who sits in the dust and tosses
with nervous excitement
a belt to the ground
again and again
as a friend tries
to redirect
consciousness’ flow
without success.

Transformation of Convention in Mechthild von Magdeburg

(Here I deploy the tools of deconstruction to discuss a medieval German mystic. The essay first appeared in the Mystics Quarterly which had recently raised its ambitions and revised its format. In its earlier incarnation, it had been called the 14th Century Mystics Newsletter, which suggested to me Monty Python's hermits exchanging pleasantries.)

An understanding of the varieties of intertextuality is essential to a fully competent reading of medieval literature. For centuries critics recommended and poets practiced principles of imitation, convention, and reliance on “auctoritee” which little recognized the post-Romantic ideal represented by Pound's dictum "Make it new!" Too often, however, relations between texts are reduced either to simple similarity (in which case it is called “influence” or a topos) or difference (in the twentieth century often praised as innovation or irony). In fact, every linguistic utterance, including the intentionally aesthetic, is generated by the simultaneous observance and violation of convention. Intertextuality thickens the density of the information borne by the literary code in ways that have received little systematic investigation. Even the prescriptions of theoreticians such as Geoffrey of Vinsauf and Matthew of Vendome are often treated as though they were nothing but stultifying recipe books for producing acceptable hackwork, whereas in reality the rhetorical writers consistently advocate not the replication but the transformation, the "rejuvenation"-'- of past models.

Mechthild von Magdeburg’s Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit [2] provides an illuminating case study of the semantic implications of the appropriation of convention. She has received little attention as a poet, [3] usually mentioned rather in accounts of the Frauenmystik of her era, but she provides a most useful paradigm for the consideration of the general problem of convention. In a broad sense she may be said to have adapted the devices of the secular Minnesang tradition to describe her mystical experiences. Though this makes her vulnerable to psychoanalytic intrusion [4] as well as literary oversimplification, she used the conventions of the courtly literature of her day, not only because it provided a convenient poetic vocabulary, nor simply in default of a better option for the expression of the ineffable, but as a strategy carefully calculated and artfully appropriate. A close reading of her work indicates the way in which the adaptation of genres, situations, and imagery devised for poetry of worldly love increases the efficiency of her own writing by imposing a new layer of semantic association over the old and creating from the juxtaposition of the two an altogether new meaning. Examination of several particularly problematic images which emphasize the tension or incongruity between the divine and human love relation indicates, not an artistic failure, but rather an extraordinary and dramatic reversal of meaning. This process illustrates a significant variety of intertextuality and suggests a provocative set of implications about literature and language as a whole.

Long before Mechthild, of course, Christian writers had spoken of the love of God in terms derived from human love. The Song of Songs, the central scriptural text for Jews and Christians which belongs in this tradition due to its interpretation if not its original intention, had received much clerical and popular attention as a result of the commentaries of Bernard of Clairvaux during the century before Mechthild's time, and many writers raided it for directly Biblical systems of imagery. Many of the great texts of early German literature speak of Mary or the personified church in terminology that suggests the lover speaking of his beloved. [5] Furthermore, it must be made clear that Minnesang conventions are not ubiquitous or even dominant in Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit. More common, for instance, are pieces structured as lists intended to serve as meditation guides or as easily remembered moral instruction.

She was a devotional rather than an intellectual poet, and she found in Minnesang qualities useful to the expression of her themes. The language of hyperbole which has always ornamented much love poetry, the emotional similarities between the spiritual and corporeal giving of oneself in rapturous attachment, the suffering of the pains of separation, and the discipline of a dedicated program of self-development to make oneself worthy of the beloved are all closely congruent areas that, in her work as well as in others, made direct borrowing possible.

Thus she adopts the general terms of the standard situation of courtly love with little change (apart from the sexual reversal necessitated by the poet's being a woman). If Christ or God is conceived as a young man and his social status as aristocratic, it is obvious that his physical beauty is nothing but the projection of essential excellence and his nobility an analogue for a profounder loftiness.[6] The vicissitudes of a love affair parallel those of the contemplative life, by now familiar through the writings of many who succeeded Mechthild and systematized for our time by the popular books of Evelyn Underhill and others. The culmination of earthly love in sexual union is depicted, too, by Mechthild in terms not far different from other writers on the subjects of spiritual betrothal, marriage, and union.

Mechthild goes beyond the general Christian tradition, though into further correspondences specifically recalling Minnesang. A list of the main elements significant in each variety of love drama would include the initial Gruss by which the beloved signals the suitor that there is some hope of favor, the lovers' communication by intermediaries and messages, the presence of jealous watchers who seek to frustrate the fulfillment of the love, the process of self-refinement (sometimes compared to the transmutation of gross elements in the alchemist's crucible), the speaker's denigration of self and exaltation of the love object, and the wash of bitter-sweetness over the whole experience. All of these elements are examples of simple transference, since their basic meaning and function in the structure of the relationship is identical in secular and divine love poetry. Mechthild uses them as a kind of shorthand that will immediately indicate to the reader that a vast range of experience and emotion with which he is familiar may help him toward a sympathetic understanding of her own. Two brief examples will suffice to demonstrate the existence and nature of this sort of adaptation of convention to a new context.

The Gruss is at once a genre of poetry and a ritualized part of the Minne drama. It is the acknowledgment that encourages the lover, however slightly, to continue his attentions. Though she does not, by granting a Gruss, commit herself in any way, she would be blameworthy were she to mislead a lover with such a greeting when his quest was wholly in vain. The Gruss, then, is a promise of the potential of the future, though it does no more than open the possibility of eventual success. A long process must normally follow after the lady has met her suitor's eyes or inclined her head toward him in a Gruss before the affair progresses to its next stage.

For Mechthild, this Gruss is an "inner” one, promised by the divine lover's "blessed eyes." [9] Like the aristocratic lady, he inclines his head toward her, though in his case it is in reality the "holy tree of the Trinity" [10] that nods in promise. Most revealing, perhaps, is the passage concluding Mechthild’s magnificent dialogue between the soul and knowledge: "The true greeting of God comes from the divine blood." [11] Thus the promise of a potential love relationship with God is contained in the sacrifice of Christ's crucifixion which alone makes human redemption possible. It does not commit God to the salvation of any given soul, but it opens the way for the soul to begin the process of making itself worthy. Thus Mechthild retains the naturalistic associations of the Gruss and exploits her audience's familiarity with the details of the secular code of love while making a structurally similar point in a compressed and vivid way.

Another motif common to Minnesang and Mechthild is the Bote or messenger. This, too, is a poetic form (as the message may be the entire contents of a poem) as well as a part of the Minne drama. Reinmar's "Lieber bote, nu wirp also” [12] is a good example of the dramatic function of the Bote. As the lovers are separated, the woman's longing is represented as heightened; the poignance of the situation is increased by the fact that she must entrust her intimate feelings to an intermediary. Thus the Bote convention allows the simultaneous expression of loving affection and frustration.
Boten figure in several of Mechthild's poems. [13] They generally convey the very same emotional mixture outlined above. More interesting, however, is her preface which begins with the following words:

I send this book as a messenger to all spiritual people, both good and bad, since when the pillars of the church fall, the building cannot stand, and since it portrays Myself alone and announces my secrets with praise. [14]

Here the entire book is said to be the word of God sent as a messenger, like a love note or like Christ, to assure the people of the world of God's love. The indirect form of the communication and the mention of the peril of the church's fall, however, admit the difficulties preventing perfect intercourse. Like the previous example, this use of the Bote requires an audience previously familiar with Minnesang convention. Building upon the earlier poetic Bote, she may suggest without explicit mention the theological doctrine of salvation by grace and express by means of the single word "botte" an entire dramatic relationship.

These are examples of relatively simple transference since the elements borrowed from secular poetry retain the same structural role and fundamental meaning in Mechthild's work. The relation may be considerably more problematic, however, in certain examples of shared imagery which cannot be satisfactorily interpreted as carrying an isomorphic semantic load in each system. In particular, the images of the nightingale, of plucked blossoms, and of the dew seem at first to be infelicitously placed in a setting where their conventional associations are cramped or altogether blocked. These represent Mechthild's most provocative and intriguing use of Minnesang, a use which in fact exploits the specific resources of poetic language especially fully.

The nightingale is unmentioned in the Bible, but appears frequently in classical and medieval literature. Probably the most important single source for its connotations in the Middle Ages is Ovid's version of the story of Philomela. [15] In this tale and in others, the nightingale is associated with frustration, longing, and the transience of the pleasures of love. It was, indeed, sometimes used as the type for worldly love as opposed to religious devotion, or as the emblem for superstition generally. [16] This area of meaning has been consistent even up to the present day. Among the many examples of medieval German lyrics evoking the nightingale as a symbol of fleeting or unsatisfied love are the anonymous "Nahtegal, sing einen don mit sinne" and Wolfram's "Ursprinc bluomen, loup uz dringen."

Mechthild again assumes that these traditional connotations are known to her readers. She represents longing and love and mystery with the bird, but in the end, her nightingale poses a direct challenge to the nightingale of earlier poets. In her most grandly encyclopedic piece [19], she hears the nightingale's song, but to her it sings of "melodious union with God," of "holy knowledge." [20] Thus, while the worldly nightingale is ultimately a bird of loss, representing the distance between what is desired and what is attained, a moving image for the inevitable failure of human aspiration, for Mechthild it becomes very nearly the opposite, a symbol of glory which is reachable. The limitless energies of her nightingales derive from the very same source as the limitations of others. She says, "The nightingale must always sing, for its nature plays – it is made of love.” [21] In another poem she equates the nightingale with the dove, the symbol of holy wisdom, as creatures uniquely qualified to dwell before the majesty of God." [22] Whereas the Bote and the Gruss were used to construct analogies between different registers of similar experience, the image of the nightingale contradicts itself. Mechthild employs the previous associations to heighten her own usage by contrast, by emphatic inappropriateness.

Imagery of flowers permeates both Minnesang and Mechthild's work. In both places it is sometimes merely decorative, sometimes subtly linked to the world-energies evoked by the renewal of life in the springtime, but the most intensely erotic flower imagery is that of broken or plucked blossoms. This is again traceable to classical poetry as in Sappho's fragment. [23] Probably the most well-known use of this image in Minnesang is found in Walther's famous "Under der linden,” [24] where the female speaker describes the broken blossoms as the only witness other than the nightingale to their tryst. She implies the hostility of society to their love by her anxiety over secrecy and speaks fondly but warily of the transience of their pleasures. The ephemeral flowers are an apt means of expressing this sort of love. Their brief period of bloom and the sense of violence and destruction inherent in the act of plucking them conflict with the simple celebration of their beauty.

Many of Mechthild's images of plucked, strewn, or broken flowers are consistent with the traditional meanings. They are sometimes simply decorative offerings [25] or rather vaguer mysterious enchantments, [26] but perhaps Mechthild's most striking use of the image is in her passage on the orchard of love.

I exist in myself
everywhere and in all things
as I was from the very beginning.
I wait for you in the orchard of love
and break for you the blooms of sweet union
and make you a bed
from the flourishing grass of holy knowledge.

Here the parallel between sexual union and mystical union supports the traditional associations of the image, but there can be no place for the usual natural implications of loss and transience. On the contrary, these blooms are plucked for a future consummation. God in this passage is specifically affirming his absolute qualities and the Minnebett not only transcends, but is opposite in kind from the earthly model. In Mechthild's poem the whole Baumgarten der Minne is made into an allegorical second Eden in which the Fall is systematically undone and complete harmony restored. Each element of this definitive locus amoenus is identified for the reader in a new sense. The secretiveness of the lovers which had been for Walther a social necessity here comments on the incapacity for language to contain the experience. By contrast to the case of the lovers in Tristan which was described in an almost equally idealized way but which provided so brief a respite, for Mechthild the plucked flowers of divine love bear an absolute value and can suggest no sense of loss. Again, the specific associations of the image are directly reversed.

Finally, the dew is used by medieval German poets as well as by those of other epochs as a standard poetic image of the delicate and beautiful but short-lived appeal of earthly love. Its fructifying dampness is qualified by its rapid evaporation. Examples are many. [28] Mechthild's appropriation of the image has ample Biblical precedent, so it will be clear that her poetic usage is not idiosyncratic.[29]

How God Comes into the Soul
I come to my lover like
Dew on the flower. [30]

Here the English reader will inevitably recall the lyric "I sing of a maiden," in which the image in used with a similar tenderness and charm, though hardly with the breathtaking immediacy of Mechthild's couplet. But in each of these cases, the semantic areas of ephemerality, of superficiality, of elegy are lost since the divine consolation is eternal. What, then, can be the point of making an image work against itself? To be sure, Mechthild speaks of the dew in other contexts in which the problem does not arise [31], but when it does, can she simply be discarding the bulk of the meaning of the phrase?
The whole medieval hermeneutic habit and Mechthild's frequent references to alchemy, numerology, and the “strangeness” of her book [32] might seem to resolve the problem. She may have anticipated an esoteric interpretation which would seek to ignore the apparent significance of her words, pursuing only their coded meaning. This explanation, however, denies any special efficacy to her strategy, reducing it to a historical curiosity.

Late in her book, in a section composed during her reflective residence at Helfde, she expresses a conceptual base that provides a second solution to the problematic images. God is speaking: "Whoever knows and loves the nobility of my freedom could not bear to love me alone on my account — he must love me rather in created things. In that way I remain closest to his soul." [33] Though she was by no means a theologian, this sort of assumption implies that the things of this world are to be not merely accepted, but celebrated with recognition but without apology for their shortcomings. The very inexactness of correspondence between the things of the creation and God may be read as itself significant. The pattern of poetic metaphor in relation to its intended object would then define the relation between Mechthild, her art, and the entire creation and God. The failure of the poetic image to deliver what it promises is then meaningful, and what had seemed imprecision becomes greater precision. The incongruity of the image becomes significant of the failure of language and this in turn of the failure of the flesh.

Even this explanation remains wholly within thematics, but it leads to an issue rich in theoretical implications for literature and for the understanding of language itself. Referentiality and representation in language have been debated continuously, but the last several decades have seen more radical attempts to deny all signification to the written word. Writers have been thought to be doing their proper work primarily when drawing attention to this very inability. This notion surely causes the reader of medieval texts to look with a new eye on what is generally called the modesty topos (in which the author protests his inability to carry out his project adequately) and the special form of this topos common in mystical literature (and, indeed, in religious writing generally) in which the writer insists that language is wholly unable to convey the information he would like to express. Many of the modernist self-reflective devices of contemporary fiction writers have early precedent in these medieval authorial concessions that the text can do little justice to the topic.

The fact is that literature seems unable to rest easily either altogether within or without referentiality. The best critical opinions have often stressed the ambiguity of the relation, as when Hesiod's muses declared to him that they could both tell the truth and lie, or when Eco defines the sign as that which is capable of falsehood, or in recent deconstructive criticism. Just as Mechthild's imagery can indicate the gap between the indescribable divine, the ultimate reality, and the earthly mortal is mediated, evaluated, magnified, but never eliminated by systems of poetic language, the writer on any subject will find a gap between the "reality" to which he plays the game of referring and the words which must serve to do the job. The space between signifier and signified had been perceived as far back as linguistic records go, but it is acutely present in a text like Mechthild's where the failure of language is a central theme. Read as a commentary on language's lagging race to catch up with its subjects, the wistful tone of the problematic images returns with a new meaning, a lament for exile from a linguistic Eden, from an imaginary prelapsarian golden age of language when words could reflect the world. This fall parallels without replacing those other falls which have wrung tears from flesh, but it, too, can be treated as a fortunate fall for just as Adam's sin made history possible, the fall of language is the precondition for literature.

1. The term is Geoffrey's, but the concept is common to him, Matthew, John of Garland, and their classical antecedents.

2. This is the usual form of the title, though the most convenient edition today is Mechthild von Magdeburg, Offenbarungen der Schwester Mechthild von Magdeburg oder Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit, ed. P. Gall Morel (Regensburg, 1869; rpt. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1963). As this book is a collection of brief lyrics rather than a continuous text, reference will be to the individual poem with the part (Theil) specified by Roman numeral and the item by Arabic.

3. The one book-length literary study is James Franklin, Mystical Transformations (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978). Franklin is primarily concerned with tracing and describing image patterns.

4. See, for instance, Jeanne Ancelet-Hustache, Mechthilde de Magdebourg 1207-1282, etude de psychologie religieuse (Paris: Ancienne Honore Champion,1926).

5. This category would include, for instance, the "St. Trudperter Hohenlied," the "Melker Marienlied," and the "Mariensequenz aus Muri."

6. This depiction is implicit throughout the book, but it is most evident in Mechthild I, 11; I, 46; and II, 23. Passages which imply sexual union are Mechthild I, 3; I, 19; I, 22; I, 44; II, 3; II, 19; II, 23.

7. Examples of the Gruss in this sense abound. Among them are Kaiser Heinrich's "Ich grueze mit gesange die suezen" and Friedrich von Hausen's "Wafena, wie hat mich Minne gelazen." To simplify my references to Minnesang, I cite them all from the collection by Max Wehrli, Deutsche Lyrik des Mittelalters (Zurich: Manesse Verlag, 1955). Thus Kaiser Heinrich's poem is Wehrli, p. 87 and Friedrich's is Wehrli, p. 93. Note also the earlier example, in Latin with certain key words in German "Dixit: 'Die illi de me corde fideli,’" Wehrli, p. 26.

8. Mechthild I, 14.

9. Mechthild II, 23.

10. Mechthild II, 25

11. Mechthild II, 19. Quotations from Mechthild within the text will be my own literal translations. The originals will be found in the notes as here: Der ware gottes grus/ Der da kunt von der himelschen blut.

12. Wehrli, p. 171.

13. In Mechthild I, 44 and II, 3 for example.

14. This is the very beginning of the book. The text reads: DIS BUCH SOL MAN GERNE ENPFAN, WAN GOT SPRICHET SELBER DIE WORT. Dis buch das sende ich nun ze botten alien geistlichen luten, beidv bosen und guten, wand wen die sule valient, so mag das werk nut gestan, und ez bezeichnet alleine mich, und meldet loblich mine heimlichkeit.